' ' Cinema Romantico: Waikiki

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


There is a moment early in Christopher Kahunahana’s “Waikiki” when Kea (Danielle Zalopany), a part-time hula dancer, is performing in some Hollywood haunt, the camera gliding past tables of spectators, eventually landing in a close-up of Kea as the performance ends. Her face is fixed in a smile betrayed as painted on both by how frighteningly wide it is and that slight tremble in her eyes and jawline, like she’s struggling to maintain it. Indeed, director Christopher Kahunahana has deemed his feature film debut as “an allegory for the contemporary issues which plague Hawaii’s people”, including “the loss of Hawaiian identity.” The song being performed by Kea is the old tune by Hawaiian-born Andy Cummings sharing the film’s own title, the one in which he longs for the sands of the famed Honolulu beach. Of course, when Cummings wrote the song he was suffering through a winter in Michigan. In Kea’s case, Waikiki is just over her shoulder, out the open air window behind her, transforming this moment into one where what’s right in front of her (or, right behind her) is no longer even accessible, as if emblematically cut off from her native land. And even if characters and portions of “Waikiki’s” narrative are disappointingly facile in their conception, moments like these, when Kahunana proffers lyrical imagery extending deep below the surface, the film soars. 

As “Waikiki” opens, the soft light of morning wakes Kea up. The camera switches to an exterior shot, however, and that is when we realize she is sleeping in her van, a single image conveying her homelessness. Other moments like this, when she brushes her teeth at a public shower on a beach, as well as her struggle to scrounge up enough cash to rent a room where she can live, suggest a kitchen sink kind of movie. However, even these early moments are dotted with dreamy flourishes, scattered flashbacks of memories that seem to come to Kea apropos of nothing and a shot of her boyfriend, Branden (Jason Quinn), slouched on the curb of some empty street smoking a cigarette. In the latter, notes of “Waikiki” drift across the soundtrack, rendering this harsh reality far from the city’s tourist center as something like a hazy hallucination, easily forgotten by those who do not live it.  

Branden, however, is a character who goes nowhere, an abusive partner mostly on hand to scream at Kea and punch walls, existing as a scary opposite. He also suggests she is crazy, a moment that puts the plot, as much as there is one, in motion when Kea hits a vagrant, Wo (Peter Shinkoda), in the middle of the street in the middle of the night with her car. If at first Branden does not believe her when she calls him for council, he then pleads for her to just leave the hurt but not dead man in the street. Instead she gets Wo inside her van and looks after him, even though he spends most of the movie in silence, causing her to look inward as she alternately chastises and reaches out to him.

The arc of this relationship feels foregone virtually from its conception, negating any sense of suspense that it might otherwise seek to exude. Then again, if the moments it yields can sometimes feel as if they are drifting too far into the territory of unbelievable, like a two-person bike ride along some undefined stretch of industrial Honolulu, trying to get passing trucks to honk, this divergence from reality also emerges as the point. If Kahunahana plays a little too coy with Kea’s exact mental state, providing cursory images of prescription bottles, we are nevertheless left with the powerful suggestion in the denouement’s flood of imagery that she is suspended in some netherworld, a Hawaiian emotionally, mentally, spiritually disconnected from her native land.

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